What Happens in the New Birth

ReachLife Institute Conference | Los Angeles

If you have a Bible, let’s go to John 3:1–10. The theme that I’ve chosen is What Happens in the New Birth? Let’s read this passage. These are the words of Jesus to Nicodemus concerning the new birth:

Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”

Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?”

The New Birth

Another word for “born again” — I just want to tell you because I’ll probably use it — is regeneration. That’s the fancy word. These are synonymous terms — born again, born anew, born from above, regeneration, made alive. Paul talks in some of those ways, and they’re all referring to this same thing. And the question is, what is it? What happens? When it happens to you, what happens?

In John 3:3, Jesus says to Nicodemus:

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.

I start there just to raise the stakes as high as they are. If you’re not born again, you won’t see the kingdom of God. You won’t go to heaven. You will, as John 3:36 says, remain under the wrath of God and wind up in hell. This is big. This is not a small thing. There are some Christian experiences that you may have or not have and still go to heaven; new birth is not one of them. If you’re not born again, you will not see or enter the kingdom of God. All of you right now should ask, “Am I born again?” and if you’re not sure, you really should listen. If you are sure, I hope you’ll listen, because not everybody knows what it means, even though it has happened to you. The stakes are very high.

Complete Helplessness

What happens when you are born again? This is an unbelievably unsettling doctrine. Any time I talk about this, I can just see the people stir. They’re shaken. They’re unsettled by it. It’s scary, and there are reasons for that. I’ll give you three reasons why it is shaking, unsettling, bothersome, worrisome, and scary to talk about this.

Number one: The teaching about new birth confronts you and me with our total hopelessness in a spiritual, moral, and legal condition apart from God’s regenerating grace. Apart from the new birth, we are hopelessly dead.

I was preparing earlier today and I thought, suppose somebody says to me, “I’m not dead. I’m sitting here. I’m breathing. I can see, hear, taste, touch, smell, and desire. What do you mean I’m dead? Lifeless?” Here’s what I mean. When you see Jesus Christ as an unregenerate person, you don’t see him as beautiful and as your supreme treasure. You see him as boring, or maybe mildly interesting. You don’t see him as stunningly glorious, wiping out all your other values so that he is supreme. You don’t see him that way if you’re not born again. Or when you hear the good news of his absolute authority, you’re not happy about that. It’s a threat to your authority. You’re not sure you want to go there with him having absolute authority over your life. If you’re not born again, the authority of Jesus makes you feel like, “Wait a minute, I’ve got some will here, I’ve got some life here, I’ve got some choices.”

Also, when you taste the sweetness of grace, it tastes bland to you. It’s bland. When you read grace, see grace, and taste grace, it’s bland. Or when you want and you desire, you don’t want God, you don’t want the blood of Jesus, you don’t want the Bible, you don’t want purity, and you don’t want hope if you’re not born again. So I admit that unregenerate people see, hear, feel, want, and desire, but they can’t want Jesus as beautiful. They can’t want the Bible as the precious word of God that describes him. They can’t desire holiness and purity. They’re all in another direction. Their will is spiritually dead. The taste buds for spiritual things are dead. They’ve died. That’s what I mean by being dead. You can’t see Jesus as beautiful, you can’t hear the gospel as compelling, you can’t taste grace as sweet, and you can’t desire true Christian living.

You might be bothered by the word can’t, but consider Romans 8:7. Apart from regeneration, I have what the Bible calls the “mind of the flesh.” The mind of the flesh is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law. Indeed, it cannot. That’s Romans 8:7, and that’s unsettling to human beings who think they’re in control. You’re not. Dead people aren’t in control. They’re being carried around in a coffin by other forces. That’s unsettling. That’s the first reason why it’s unsettling.

Inability to Change

The second reason why it’s unsettling is that there’s nothing you can do to change it. You’re dead. John 1:13 says:

Who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

You aren’t born again by an act of will. Dead people don’t make themselves alive. That’s unsettling. You’re unsettled right now if you’ve never been taught that. You might be thinking, “What do you mean I can’t make this happen? If I can’t make this happen, I don’t have to do it.” Human, we’re looking at the Bible, not our ideas. Listen to 1 Peter 1:3:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again …

You didn’t cause your first birth, and you don’t cause your second birth. You couldn’t even read the book on how to get out of the womb. And you can’t read it now, because there isn’t one. God gets you out of the womb of deadness. It’s a miracle, and it’s totally one-sided. That raises many questions. We’ll try to answer some of them, but that’s the second reason why it’s so unsettling to talk about this doctrine.

Sovereign Freedom

The third reason is that it exposes us to the absolute freedom of God. I’m not the one who does it. He is absolutely free. John 3:8 says:

The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.

Where did that come from? I now love Jesus. I now want the Bible. I now crave holiness. What happened? You didn’t do that. You can’t make yourself like the Bible. Try it right now. If you came in here not liking the Bible, go ahead, try it — click. You can’t do it. You can’t make yourself love Jesus. You can’t make yourself love holiness. Your taste buds are dead. You have to have a free and sovereign God move mightily into your life and raise you from the dead.

What’s the Point?

Now, those three unsettling things should raise this question, “Why are you here? I mean if God raises the dead, you can stay in Minneapolis. Yesterday was the first day of spring in Minneapolis. It snowed two days before. So what are you doing out here? God raises the dead. Stay home, Piper.” That’s a good question, and the answer is easy to find in the Bible. I’ll read it to you. This is 1 Peter 1:23:

You have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God;

And then 1 Peter 1:25 says:

This word is the good news that was preached to you.

So God is the one-sided, sovereign, free, decisive cause of the new birth, but he uses the word of God to bring it to pass. Therefore, I did not come here for nothing. I anticipate that through this word, based on his word, the Holy Spirit will blow in this place and somebody will be born alive. Somebody will be born alive again. When it happens, my whole point and that word would have been missed if you thought I did that. In fact, if I did it, it’s not real. God does it, and it makes all the difference in the world.

Here’s the picture you should have in your mind. Lazarus has been dead for four days. Do you remember the story in John 11:17–44? He’s been dead for four days, and his sister said he’s smelling. He is in the tomb, and Jesus says, “Roll the stone away.” Then Jesus doesn’t say, “Meet the conditions and you will live. Believe and you will live.” He says, “Lazarus, come out.” And the word created life, just like it did in the beginning. That’s the way people are born again, and he uses the Bible to do that. He uses preaching to do that. He’ll use you to do it.

The Greatest Miracle

In fact, I’ve got this question for you. I’m praying. I’m assuming that most of you are born again. I’m not assuming I’m preaching mainly to unregenerate people, although I know in a crowd this size, there are some. I’m assuming that most of you are going to listen to this and you’re going to say, “Yes, I want to be in that. I want to do that. I want to be an instrument of that in LA.” I’m going to ask you this. Some of you are very enamored by the fact that miracles happen through people. You can heal people and you can exorcize demons. I believe that’s true. But Jesus will say to people like that, “Depart from me, I never knew you.” They will say, “Did we not do many mighty works in your name? Did we not cast out demons in your name?” But he will say, “Depart from me, I never knew you.” That’s Matthew 7:22–23.

Would you rather be a person who could walk through all the cemeteries of LA and raise the dead right out of the ground? Let’s just say the ones who died in the last five years, just to keep it simple, because their relatives are all around and they’d like you a lot for that, probably. You’d become very famous. You would be in the news. That would feel cool and you would feel powerful. You would. And all those people would go to hell, maybe. They’d just live and they’d go to hell after they die again. Now, what use have you been? You got your name in the newspaper, you felt some surges of power, and you’re an instrument of damnation.

Or would you rather be an instrument of raising the living dead, who will never go to hell, ever, because they’ve been raised from the dead by the word of God, and you then will be with them forever in heaven? That is the legacy that you would want. I’m praying for two things here. I’m praying that those of you who are not born of God will be touched by the Spirit of God and awakened, and that others of us would be set on fire to be instruments of the word so that God would raise the living dead.

If that’s an odd phrase to you, do you remember Jesus said to the man who said, “I’ll follow you wherever you go, but first let me go bury my father” (Luke 9:59)? Do you remember what he said to him? “Let the dead bury their dead” (Luke 9:60). What’s that? Let the dead bury their dead. That means there are living dead. That’s what that means.

Do you remember the parable of the prodigal son? The young son comes home and the older son is all bent out of shape because the young son has a party and the older son never had a party. He won’t even come to the party. The father goes out to entreat him, and do you remember what he said? He said, “This brother of yours was dead, and he’s alive” (Luke 15:32). So you have to have a category for the living dead. They’re walking all around us by the millions, and you are instruments of life. When the word comes out of your mouth, God loves, according to I Peter 1:23, to cause people to be born again by the living word.

What Happens in the New Birth?

So that’s my introduction to how unsettling this is, and now the question I said we would tackle is, what happens in the new birth? I have three answers, and I’ll try to get them from this text in John 3:1–10 so that you can see them. Number one: In the new birth, you are not getting a new religion, but a new life. Number two: In the new birth, you are not merely affirming the supernatural in Jesus, but experiencing the supernatural in yourself. Number three: In the new birth, your old human nature is not merely being improved, but a new creature is being created that is really you and really new — forgiven, cleansed, and being conformed to the image of Christ by the indwelling Holy Spirit. Those are my three answers. Let’s take them one at a time.

1. A New Life

First, in the new birth, it is not getting a new religion that’s happening, but getting a new life. Let’s read John 3:1–3:

Now there was a man of the Pharisees (mark that word) named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews (mark that phrase). This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Now, I think John begins this way, telling this story, so that you and his readers back then would know we’re talking about a Pharisee, and we’re talking about a ruler of the Jews. So pick your favorite, most faithful, degree-granting seminary, and then pick your most religious people, and this man was a graduate of the highest level, a Pharisee, and he was a ruler of that most religious people at that most conservative and faithful biblical seminary, and he’s dead. Jesus said to him, “You must be born again, Pharisee. You must be born again, ruler of the Jews. It doesn’t matter that you’re a Pharisee, the most skilled, most Bible-saturated of all the Jews. It doesn’t matter that you’re a ruler and have amazing responsibility, maybe a preacher.”

There are preachers who need to be born again. That’s a scary thought for me. I don’t ever assume my office guarantees anything about my spiritual condition. It doesn’t. You must have life. That’s my first point. It’s not a new religion. You’ve got religion. You need new life. You need to be born again. You’ve got to come alive, Nicodemus, not just have another religion.

2. Experiencing the Supernatural

Second, the new birth is not merely affirming the supernatural in Jesus, saying, “You’re supernatural, and you’re the Son of God,” but it’s experiencing the supernatural in you. Now, where do I see that? In John 3:2, Nicodemus says:

Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.

And Jesus did not respond to that by saying, “Oh, Nicodemus, I wish everybody in Israel had the eyes that you have so that they could see that I am from God.” He didn’t say that. He didn’t commend the recognition of the supernatural in Jesus. He said, “You need the supernatural in you. You have to be born again.”

Seeing signs and wonders and being amazed at them saves nobody. Do you know why, and why they’re so dangerous? They do happen. Miracles happen, and signs and wonders happen. Do you know why they’re so dangerous? You don’t have to be born again to be amazed at them, and to go to the churches where they happen. In fact, I would guess that wherever they are happening, unregenerate people are flocking to them amazed, because we all love amazing things. I mean, if somebody’s getting healed, that’s amazing, but you don’t have to be born again to think it’s amazing, and therefore it’s not necessarily of saving power.

The devil, in the day of Jesus, knew him better than anyone and said so. Do you remember? Every time he bumped into a devil they would say something like, “We know who you are, Son of the Most High God. What are you doing showing up here before the time?” (Matthew 8:29; Mark 5:7) That’s what they said. They knew him. They knew him better than the people knew him. Did it save them, that they could recognize the supernatural? It didn’t save them at all. Why? They didn’t love it. They hated it. You can have amazing insight into the deity of Jesus and be lost like the devil.

Even the Demons Believe

The second point here about what happens in the new birth is that it is not merely that a person recognizes Jesus as a supernatural being, even the Son of God like the devils recognized, saying, “You’re the Son of God, and you can cast us into these pigs. Please, please, don’t drive us anywhere. Give us someplace to go.” They were totally at his disposal. You talk about submission. No, they hated him. They didn’t love him. He wasn’t beautiful to them. They weren’t born again, but oh, they saw supernatural and they trembled. Nobody is saved by trembling at the supernatural in Jesus. We are saved by being born again — not seeing a miracle, but being a miracle. We have to be resurrected, not just see a resurrection happen.

John 3:6 says:

That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.

So the Spirit is God, the supernatural power, and when you’re born of God, something supernatural is happening in you. It’s not just happening out there, and you see it and recognize it and are amazed by it. You must be born of the Spirit. When you’re born of the Spirit, you are spirit, meaning your spirit is now alive to God. You love what he loves, you hate what he hates, and you go where he calls. He’s your treasure. You’re born alive because the supernatural Spirit came. It’s the same thing in John 3:8:

The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.

God Almighty does this. I don’t do it, and you don’t do it. The Spirit blows freely in this room. You don’t know where he might have come. You don’t know what set of chairs he might be moving most powerfully in right this moment. You have no idea. He is free, like the wind. He moves and he saves.

So what happens in the new birth? Not new religion, but a new life; not merely affirming supernatural reality in Jesus, but experiencing supernatural reality in us.

3. A New Creation

And third, what happens in the new birth? Not the improvement of your old human nature, but the creation of a new human nature that’s really you and really new — cleansed, forgiven, inhabited by the Holy Spirit, and shaped gradually into the image of Jesus. John 3:5 is the most difficult verse, and we’re going to linger on it a little longer. This is the last point.

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.

What does it mean to be born of water and the Spirit? There are those who teach, and they’re all around you, that baptism does that. It’s called baptismal regeneration. I’ll read you an excerpt from their website. I’m not going to name any denominations. There is more than one that teaches this. I’ll read you one:

Holy baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit, and the door which gives access to other sacraments. Through baptism, we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God. We become members of Christ, are incorporated into the church, and made sharers in her mission. Baptism is the sacrament of regeneration through water and the word.

Millions of people are taught that around the world. Millions of people in very large churches are taught that baptism is the sacrament of regeneration. If that’s not true, this is a great and global tragedy. And it is not true, and therefore it is a great, global tragedy. Millions of people, if you asked them, “Are you born again?” or, “Do you belong to Christ?” or some question like that, would go to their baptism as the warrant for their confidence before God.

A Lack of Contextual Evidence

So what does water mean here? Because this would be the key text they would go to. I’m going to give you four reasons why I don’t think the word water means baptism. Let’s read the verse again, just to make sure you have it. Are you with me? I want you to see this. I don’t want to try to pull any rank here at all. I just want you to see. John 3:5 says:

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water (a very strange phrase, right?) and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.

Here’s my first reason: If that were referring to baptism, if it were saying, “Truly, truly I say to you, unless you’re baptized with water, like an infant being sprinkled or any other way, you’re not going into the kingdom, and if it does happen to you, then you’re born again,” then it seems strange to me that baptism totally drops out in the rest of this chapter, because this chapter is all about how to have eternal life, how to be in the kingdom, and how to be saved.

John 3:15 says:

that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

And John 3:16 says:

Whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

And John 3:18 says:

Whoever believes in him is not condemned …

It just sounds like belief is the point. Wouldn’t it be strange if you had to be baptized or else you won’t have eternal life, and then he doesn’t even mention it. That just seems strange to me. That’s not an air-tight argument that says it can’t mean that, but it just seems odd to me that if baptism had that rank, Jesus would speak of faith that way.

The Wind Blows Where It Wishes

Here’s my second reason: The analogy of the wind in John 3:8 would seem very strange if you could attach the new birth right there to every baptism that happened. Every eight-day-old baby that got sprinkled, you would say, “That’s regeneration.” If the wind blows where it wills, and you don’t know where it’s coming from or where it’s going, and such are all who are born of the Spirit, and if baptism is the point of guaranteed new birth, then this wind is blowing in one place quite predictably. That’s not what the verse says. It’s blowing where you don’t know where it’s blowing. That doesn’t make sense to me if this is a reference to baptism.

Are You Not the Teacher of Israel?

Here’s my third reason: If Jesus is referring to Christian baptism here, the baptism that’s coming that will save, it seems very strange that he would scold Nicodemus as a ruler of the Jews, a teacher of Israel, for not knowing about it. Look at John 3:10, which says:

Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?

He is saying, “You know your Old Testament, and you don’t understand these things?” Now, if it were a reference to baptism, I think he’d have a legitimate complaint here. Nicodemus could say, “I’m reading my Old Testament, and I’m not getting this, that you think this is baptism when it says water, and you complain to me that I’m a teacher in Israel and I don’t know what you’re going to make of this in the church.”

The Promise of the New Covenant

Here’s my fourth and last reason, and this is the main one. Finally, John 3:10 sends us back to the Old Testament for some background. Where do water and Spirit happen in a way that illuminates Jesus’s words? The answer is Ezekiel 36, and if you want to go there with me, I would encourage you to. Ezekiel is a big prophet in the Old Testament, and he is prophesying about the stunning, amazing, and miraculous things that will happen to the people of God as they return from exile, and we know that Jesus taught that what Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Moses (in Deuteronomy 30) said meant that far more than Israel would benefit from the New Covenant that’s being established in these words.

Remember that at the Last Supper Jesus lifted the cup and he said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20), which is a reference back to Jeremiah 31:31, Ezekiel 36, Ezekiel 29, Ezekiel 11, and Deuteronomy 30:6. All these are references to the New Covenant in the Old Testament, and Jesus says, “It’s me. My blood is purchasing all those promises in the New Covenant.” That’s the attachment between the blood of Jesus shed, what we’re about to look at in Ezekiel 36, and the new birth. Let’s watch this connection. Ezekiel 36:24–25 says:

I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you (alright, we’ve got water now), and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you (this is water for cleansing).

God is saying, “I’m going to cleanse you from your idols and your uncleanness.” This is clearly more than physical. This is a picture of spiritual cleansing from idolatry and sin. The passage continues:

And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you (born of water, born of the Spirit). And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God (Ezekiel 36:26–28).

I think that passage explains John 3:5, which says, “Unless you are born of water and of the Spirit …”

You Will Be My People

To whom does Ezekiel say, in Ezekiel 36:28, “You will be my people, and I will be your God”? The answer is in Ezekiel 36:25, which says, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses.” In other words, “You’re going to get into my fellowship, into my kingdom, through being cleansed and washed. I’m going to take away your sins. I’m going to wipe them away. I’m going to forgive them. I’m not going to remember them anymore.” That’s what water means here. It means, “I’m just going to wash you clean so that you can come into my presence though you’ve sinned so many ways.” The water here is a preparation for the kingdom through cleansing. Then Ezekiel 36:26 says:

I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you.

So you not only have to be clean, you have to be new. You have to have a new set of longings and desires and loves, or wants. God is saying, “I’m going to give you a new heart. I’m going to take out stony, dead hearts. I’m going to put in new, living, pulsating, God-exalting hearts. You’ve got to be clean with water, and you’ve got to be new by the Spirit.” I think that’s where he got John 3:5. So I conclude water and spirit refer to two aspects of our newness when we’re born again, and both are important.

Born of Water and the Spirit

Work with me for just a few more minutes. This is a little bit demanding, but this is very important. Both the water work and the Spirit work, both the cleansing work and the new creation work, are necessary. Without the cleansing one, you might think, “Well, the new birth is a replacement of the old me, so I go out of existence and a new me comes into existence. Will that work if you’re saying, “The old me needs to be cleaned so that the old me cleaned can be in the kingdom?” That’s why I said, when I stated the third thing that happens in the new birth, that it’s not just the improvement of the old, it’s a creation of the new that is really you. The moral, responsible human agent called John Piper existed before I was born again, and the moral, responsible human agent called John Piper exists after I’m born again, and it’s one being — cleansed, forgiven, and purified. And that’s the point of the water, to establish that continuity of personhood, now cleansed.

When you’re born again, you don’t vanish. You’re cleaned. That’s part of the meaning of “born of water.” It means you are born of the cleansing work of the Spirit so that the you who was will be the you who is, only new and clean.

And yet, when the Spirit comes, he makes you new because you’re not just guilty, needing forgiveness and cleansing, but you’ve got really bad desires, right? You’ve got bad desires. You love the wrong stuff. Forgiveness doesn’t fix that. But a new birth does — taking out the heart of stone and putting in the heart of tender, touchable flesh, writing the law on your heart so that you love to do what you once didn’t love to do, you love to read what you once didn’t love to read.

The new birth is a work of the Spirit of God by which we are cleansed of all the stuff that would make us unsuitable for heaven in terms of our uncleanness and our guilt and our sin, and the new birth also creates a new being, transforms us into a new person, which is in continuity with the old, but now is new because it’s got new desires and new longings. The law is being written on the heart, not just written on stone and required from outside.

New Desires

The glory of God, the spiritual truth and beauty of Jesus, and the path of holiness, those things were not loved by the old you. You didn’t love the glory of God, you didn’t love the beauty of Jesus, and you didn’t love the path of holiness. When you’re born again, you do. You do because the heart is soft. The heart of stone comes out. The stone is dead to spiritual things, and then the heart of flesh goes in.

I remember years ago reading one of my favorite teachers, Jonathan Edwards, who is 250 years dead, describing on page after page what it meant to have a fleshy heart. He said if you take a pin and prick a stone, it just breaks the pin, but if you prick flesh, it bleeds. It’s tender, it’s responsive, and it’s alive, so that when spiritual things come, there’s responsiveness to it.

One of the guys in my preaching class asked me this past Thursday, “John, do you think we should preach on sin to the church, or just mention sin and get on to the good news?” I said, “I’m 67 and I find it sweet and unbelievably helpful for rich, solid expositions of my sinful condition to be delivered to me. My heart is so hungry to have my sinful layers peeled back and have my heart pricked and bleed for my sins that I don’t even understand.” I don’t think we ever get beyond our need for preaching about sin. It just needs to go deeper and deeper. I just mention that as an illustration of how my heart hasn’t grown beyond the need to be told I’m a sinner and be exposed in fresh ways.

I need to understand my marriage better. I’ve been married 44 years, and I’m trying to understand. No, you don’t understand. I feel like I know less about it now than I did 20 years ago. I’m not talking about her, I’m talking about me. I’m more perplexed by me in relation to her now than I’ve ever been. I need really wise, deep preachers to unfold my selfish, self-pitying, pouting, oh-poor-me heart for the sake of my marriage. God, in the new birth, put a fleshly heart in me. It’s been easily pained for 61 years. I’m 67 and I was born again when I was six.

Christ Our Life

I’m almost done so let me wrap it up like this. In Summary of the new birth, Nicodemus, you, and I don’t need a new religion, we need a new life. Second, in the new birth, we don’t merely affirm that Jesus is supernatural, recognize it, and become amazed by it, we must experience it in ourselves. We must be the objects of the supernatural. The Spirit works here. The Spirit blows here and awakens, and takes out the heart and put in the heart. Third, it’s not mere improvement of the old, it is water cleansing the old so that the old now is free from all that guilt, all that stain, and all that uncleanness, and it is the Holy Spirit shaping me.

I have this picture. See if this sticks. I picture that the new heart that the Holy Spirit is making is now like supple clay — putty, clay, dough, play-dough, whatever that stuff is now. The Spirit comes and he pushes himself into this ball of clay. He pushes himself in there, and he moves around until the shape of the Spirit is the shape of my life, and the Spirit is the Spirit of Christ, and therefore I’m being made Christlike. As I fail and squish and grieve, he pushes in again and moves around. He’s going to be doing this until Jesus comes or until I’m dead, and I’ll tell you, it can be very painful sometimes, and wonderfully rewarding other times. He’s going to be doing it. He is God, and he won’t drop you. If you’re born again, you’re never going to be unborn again. He’ll keep you to the end.

That leaves one last observation. How does the new life imparted in the new birth relate to Jesus’s life? John 14:6 says:

I am the way, and the truth, and the life.

Jesus is the life. Or John 6:35 says:

I am the bread of life.

Or John 20:31 says:

These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

I’ve argued that in the new birth, the Holy Spirit moves, takes out the heart of stone, puts a living heart in there, and gives life. I haven’t said anything about how that relates to Jesus. That’s a big omission. Here’s the answer: What happens in the new birth is that the Holy Spirit brings us into a vital connection with Christ, who is our life. Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches” (John 15:5). How does that happen? That’s the new birth. It’s connecting your dead, dry branch that’s lying on the ground with the living vine so that life is flowing. That’s the new birth. But the life now is clear — it’s Jesus. Jesus is the vine. The Holy Spirit was sent into the world to glorify Jesus, and the way the Spirit glorifies Jesus is by making Jesus the life that we have, uniting us to Jesus.

Regeneration and Faith

Here’s the last observation. New life makes faith possible. Since spiritual life always awakens faith, it never exists where there’s no faith. Probably the most unsettling thing I said at the beginning was that there’s nothing you can do to make yourself born again. That’s true. But even though, from God’s side, it is decisively God who causes the new birth — just like God brought you into being the first time, he brings you into being the second time — the first cry out of your mouth as a new born babe is, “I trust you. I love you. I treasure you.” That word — faith, love, treasuring — is the fruit of the new birth, not the cause of the new birth. If you made it the cause, you would get the glory; but if it’s the fruit, he gets the glory.

Here’s the way John puts them together in his epistle. First John 5:4 says:

Everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world — our faith.

Okay, which is it, John? He speaks of the new birth and faith, the new birth and faith. Let me leave it with you this way. Objectively, what is happening is that God Almighty is raising the dead when you’re born again. Subjectively, what you experience is faith. You say, “I believe.” You read in your Bible one day and it’s boring. You read in the Bible the next day and there’s faith. You’re reading Jesus one day and it’s meaningless. You’re looking at Jesus the next day, and you say, “My Lord and my God.” What happened? You didn’t make that happen. Jesus, God made it happen, but your experience of it is faith that says, “I love you. I trust you. You’re my God. You’re my Savior. You’re my Lord. You’re my treasure.” That’s new birth talking.

So maybe I should leave you like this. Since the way that you experience this sovereign miracle of God and his gift of the new birth is by trusting and treasuring Jesus — since that’s the way you experience it — then I should invite you, in the name of Jesus and by the power of the Holy Spirit, at this moment to embrace him as your Savior, embrace him as your Lord, embrace him as the supreme treasure of your life, and thus you would know, “I’m born again.”